Open sourcing your event. A featured interview with Harrison Owen

December 12, 2007   |   AUTHOR: Julius Solaris   |   POSTED IN: Barcamps and OpenSource

It is a great honor for this blog to host Harrison Owen as a part of the featured interviews section.

Harrison has worked on virtually every continent with organizations ranging from small villages to large corporations and NGOs. His major concern has been to assist organizations as they negotiate a transforming world. In some cases his role has been little more than holding the hands of the anxious. In other situations his function was more overt, assisting organizations in the sometimes painful process of self-understanding and renewal. In all situations the organizational mythology and culture was the focal point, and the power of self-organization the ultimate driver.

For what concerns events Harrison Owen is the voice of Open Space Technology which he has theorized and discussed in his masterpiece Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide which I invite you to read if you approaching the world of Barcamps, Unconferences or simply if you want to add a flare of Open Source concepts to your event.

Let’s see what Harrison has told us.

- What is the role (if there is one) of event coordinators in Open Space Technology (OST) events?

Pretty much the same as in all other events – taking care of space, logistics, and meals. But it is a lot simpler because the meeting basically runs itself (self-organization) and the participants take responsibility for their needs and actions. Even with very large gatherings (1000-2000+) this is true. In a curious way, the real trick is NOT to do stuff.

- What are the first steps we should take to integrate OST practices in our next event?

The very first step is to really make sure that you actually want to use Open Space. Open Space is marvelous when you have highly complex issues and a great diversity of participants. It is absolutely the wrong thing if the sponsor wants to remain in control of what is going on, both in terms of the happenings during the gathering and the final results. Control resides with the participants who will decide what they want to talk about, how they want to do that – and the conclusions that result will be theirs. This may sound like total chaos and pandemonium but the experience is that the people will take charge of what they care about and the results can be almost mind-blowing. For example a group of engineers at Boeing re-designed the manufacturing process for making doors on their airplanes. They did this in two days when everybody “knew” that doing something like this could take several years. Not every Open Space produces results like that, but after 20 years and several 100,000 iterations in 134 countries it has become quite clear that the Boeing experience is not unique.

- Three attributes of the perfect OST event

I hate to say it, but every Open Space is perfect J And the common attributes are 1) High Learning – folks regularly think impossible thoughts and come up with unthinkable solutions. 2) High Play – everything takes place in a playful, albeit respectful environment. Even when the central issue is deadly serious (as with Palestinians and Israelis working on the issues of war and peace) – it is quite common to hear laughter breaking out followed by hugs. 3) Appropriate structure and control – the level of structure and control in the typical Open Space event is so complex that no planning committee would even dare suggest it, but that structure and control is all emergent. It comes from the people themselves. In a gathering of 2108 German Psychiatrists, the participants created 236 concurrent sessions which all ran over the course of a single day and each session produced a written report. That is complex structure and control! 4) Genuine Community – One of the curious things about Open Space is that even mortal enemies (literally people who have been killing each other) will treat each other with respect, and most often end up liking each other (hugs).


- Why a sponsor would like to support an OST event?

The predisposing conditions for an Open Space are as follows: 1) A real business issue, however you might define “business – that people really care about. 2) Enormous complexity in terms of that issue such that no single person or even a very smart group could possibly get their arms around it. 3) Great diversity of the participants in terms of points of view, disciplines, economic status, education etc. 4) Lot of passion and conflict. 5) A Decision time of yesterday – in short this is an issue that needs to be dealt with NOW!

- What is the role of volunteers in OST?

If by “volunteers” you mean people that help out, but don’t participate – that role is minimal to non-existent. Everybody there should care to be there – and if they don’t care about the issue, no reason for them to come. And if they are there, and do care – the will take care of just about everything. Seems to work every time.